In Belgium, Potato Fans Fret Over Fate of Frites

9/19/2011 21:55:55 PM

KAIN, Belgium—French fries aren't French—they're Belgian. And in a country without a single common language, the humble snack is a potent national symbol.

That's why farmers, fryers and foodies are battling over the future of the potato which made Belgium great: the bintje.

First grown a century ago, the bintje potato flourished in flat, rainy Belgium and fed the nation through two world wars. One legend has it American soldiers got a taste for the snack, taking it on to achieve global fame and misattributing its nationality in the process. And it makes delicious, golden frites, which are then served up with mayonnaise.

"The bintje is irreplaceable in terms of taste and crunchiness," Pierre Lebrun, agronomist and head of the Walloon potato growers' association, said to an audience of hundreds of farmers at Potato Europe 2011, a trade show earlier this month. "It's intrinsic to Belgium."

But this fruitful relationship is in danger. Global commerce demands a long, firm, smooth tuber, the better to produce the frozen, uniform obelisks required by fast-food megakitchens.

The knobby, short bintje just isn't up to the task.

In this country of 10 million, the question Mr. Lebrun poses—"to bintje or not to bintje"—isn't small potatoes. Belgium's per capita annual french fry consumption exceeds America's by about a third. The picture-postcard city of Bruges is home to the world's only french fry museum. There's even an iPhone app to help hungry Belgians locate their nearest fix. It's an empire built on bintje.

Yet while Belgium's potato production has nearly tripled since 1999, bintje cultivation has stagnated since 1996.

Fans rise to bintje's defense.

"Just like Magritte's picture of a pipe, a potato is not just a potato," says Romain Cools, head of Belgapom, the Belgian potato trade body. "You cannot compare bintje with other varieties."

"The bintje is the best potato, it makes the tastiest fries and no other type can rival their delicious taste," says Gerrit Tjepkema, a potato seedling broker who set up a website proclaiming the virtues of the veteran variety, which he sells along with others.

There are rules, of course.

"You have to fry them twice in beef dripping, once at 160 degrees, then again at about 175, and they mustn't be cut too thinly," says Paul Ilegems, author of four books on fries and fritkots, the takeout stands that fry them.

"Fritkots are like Belgium, they're makeshift, temporary structures, not like a McDonald's," says the retired professor from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. "Belgium doesn't have a national symbol, there's no Eiffel Tower, but we have frites."

He recounts the history of the bintje, created in the early 20th century by a Dutch schoolteacher, who named the new variety after one of his pupils, a girl called Bintje.

"A very good potato," he concludes.

The potato fry is all the more significant because the country is barely holding together. After decades of tension between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North and Francophone Wallonia in the South, the last elections in June 2010 led to a political deadlock which has seen the country without a federal government for 450 days. Several months in, a viral email started circulating: 'Civil War in Belgium!' it warned, above a picture of french fries covered in ketchup mimicking two armies facing off.

"In Belgium we eat potatoes almost every day," says Benedicte Morel as she lined up at a Brussels fritkot, Maison Antoine, at lunchtime on Thursday. "And the bintje is the most famous, it's best for fries."

Dozens of people line up at Maison Antoine, which has been serving up frites for 60 years. A Spanish couple consulting their foodie guide book, civil servants from the nearby European Commission, as well as Belgians like Ms. Morel, wait for fries and one of a dozen mayonnaise-based sauces.

Displayed on a bulletin board are celebrity visitors, including Johnny Hallyday, the French rocker who came to buy Maison Antoine's frites in his red Ferrari.

An hour's train ride away, Potato Europe 2011 took place this month in fields outside the medieval city of Tournai. Farmers, processors and root vegetable buyers from Japan, Russia, Turkey and across the continent gathered to see and buy everything from new breeds of spuds to sorting lines for their harvests. They also enjoyed ultra-fresh fries, washed down with beer.

In a test field, gleaming new four-lane harvesters churned over the clay-rich soil as boot-clad farmers looked on approvingly. They pulled up popular varieties of tuber such as challenger, innovator and ramos—not a bintje in sight.

"Fifteen years ago, everything we handled was bintje; now it's around 5%," says Farm Frites' potato procurement director Leon Boer at the company's trade-fair stand. The company is one of the world's largest potato processors. "Fast food needs more length and product consistency."

Global consumers like their fries at least 40 millimeters long, or about 1.6 inches—and bintjes usually peak at about 35 millimeters, or about 1.4 inches.

It's a great potato, but its time is up, some say.

"My great-grandfather, who founded the company, used to import them, they did well in Belgian soil," says Francis Binst, general manager of Binst Breeding & Selection, which sells potato seedlings, including bintje, to Belgium's farmers. "But now other varieties have better yields due to climate change, the bintje is too sensitive."

At the trade fair, many plant scientists and frying experts concurred with Mr. Binst. Too unpredictable, and dangerously prone to mildew and slugs, they say.

But Mr. Cools, the head of the Belgian potato trade body, insists the talk of inconsistency of the potato quality is overdone.

"It looks likely bintje will do very well again this year," he says. "It's the potato that made our industry great."

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